Since moving to Mississippi ten years ago, I have been continually struck by the state’s rich but complicated history. One of the most overused quotes down here is from William Faulkner: “the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.” Indeed, my state’s past still haunts and inspires Mississippians today. For many southern whites, the past evokes tangled feelings of both pride and shame. They wrestle with the question of whether they can celebrate the bravery of Confederate ancestors while acknowledging the central role of slavery in the Civil War. The imposition of Jim Crow after Reconstruction and the violence directed against southern blacks during the Civil Rights era remain difficult for many southern whites to face, many of whom insist that this ugly history is best forgotten. Yet the wounds of this dark past are not yet fully healed, and black and white southerners still struggle with how to move forward as a unified society.
Figuring out how Jews fit into this southern story has been a central focus of my career as a historian. Recently, a visit to Columbus, Georgia, got me thinking about how Jews have interacted with the South’s conflicted history. Columbus is home to an old Jewish community that goes back before the Civil War. One of its early Jewish residents was Raphael Moses, a lawyer who moved to Columbus in 1849. Wanting to join the ranks of southern planters, Moses bought a plantation on a hill outside the city, which he named Esquiline. By 1850, Moses already owned sixteen slaves, five of whom were children. Moses focused his plantation on growing peaches, and he became the first planter to sell the fruit outside of the state. By 1860, Moses had 47 slaves working on his plantation.
During the Civil War, Moses joined the Confederate army, but was too old to serve in combat. Instead, he became Confederate Commissary of Georgia, responsible for supplying and feeding 54,000 Confederate troops. He was close with General Robert E. Lee, and was with him at the Battle of Gettysburg. Three of Moses’ sons fought for the South; one died in the war. After emancipation, Moses was shocked when all but one of his slaves decided to leave Esquiline once they gained their freedom. Moses, like other slave owners, believed in the delusional and paternalistic notion that their slaves greatly appreciated their masters for caring for them over the years. Moses became a political leader after the war, serving in the state legislature during Reconstruction. When a political opponent raised his Jewishness as a disqualifying factor, Moses wrote a famous letter asserting his Jewish pride: “I feel it an honor to be of a race whom persecution cannot crush, whom prejudice has in vain endeavored to subdue.” The irony of a former slave owner decrying persecution and prejudice was apparently lost on Moses.
When I was in Columbus, I was very excited to learn that the Esquiline Cemetery, containing the graves of Moses and his family, was still there. The plantation is long gone. The grand home owned by Moses burned down in the early 20th century. Eventually, the family sold off the 1000-acre plantation, and now the cemetery is surrounded by a housing subdivision. Parking on a cul-de-sac filled with modest homes, my local guides led me through a clearing in the adjacent woods. After a short distance, we came upon the small cemetery, ringed by a chain-linked fence topped with barbed wire. Though many of the stones have been broken over the years, a heavy sense of history still infuses this small plot of ground.
Columbus Jews today are rightfully proud of Moses. He was one of the city’s most prominent citizens, and his advancements in the storage and shipping of peaches helped make the fruit one of Georgia’s most lucrative crops. He ascended the social ranks of plantation owners, proving that his Jewishness was no barrier to entry. He is evidence that Jews were loyal southerners, and were fully integrated within southern life and culture. And yet, it’s hard to embrace Moses fully. While the names of Moses and his ancestors are etched into stone in the Esquiline Cemetery and in history books, we don’t know the names of the slaves and their children who once called the plantation home. What were their lives like? How did they respond to the opportunities and challenges of freedom? These questions went through my head as I visited the graves at Esquiline.
This ambivalence and uneasiness with the past echoes a larger tension that still permeates southern life today. White southerners often have a complicated relationship with the region’s history. That southern Jews do as well is yet another indication of just how southern we are.
Today’s blog comes to us from Michael Goodman at Goodman Writes, another “Southern & Jewish” voice. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Last week, I made an online and somewhat anonymous contribution to the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. I had heard about the group from a college classmate from Mississippi with whom I shared stories of growing up Jewish in the South. Now, I want to be more outright in my support of the organization’s work because I am sure they will use my money well.
So why is this important to me?
My paternal grandfather came to this country in the early 1900s and settled in the Deep South, traveling across the region from Mississippi, to Louisiana, to Texas, to Arkansas. He was not a deeply religious man, from what I am told, but he had his own way of keeping Judaism alive. He was a peddler and a butcher by trade. He slaughtered and cut up meat for a living, and the meat he used in his own household was slaughtered in a kosher way. It was one important vestige of Judaism that he tried to maintain.
He eventually settled with his wife and most of his 12 children in the tiny town of Calion, Arkansas, not far from the semi-booming metropolis of El Dorado, probably in the mid to late 1920s. According to the entry on El Dorado in the ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, the city became a boom town in the 1920s when oil was discovered there. The boom led a number of Jewish merchants to come to El Dorado to open stores, deal in real estate, and establish oil-related businesses.
Now, it is important to know the luck of my family when it comes to oil. I can remember visiting my aunt, uncle, and cousins in the late 1950s in the unlikely-named town of Oil City, Louisiana, near Shreveport. Looking out from their backyard I could see oil well, oil well, oil well, then my uncle’s property, then oil well, oil well. What’s wrong with this picture? I am told that if I had visited my Aunt Libby in Kilgore, Texas, I would have seen a similar plethora of oil wells with a blank space on her property. And my mother says my grandfather suffered a similar plight on his land near El Dorado. It seems that we Goodmans were destined not to get rich quick (or even rich at all).
While he failed to prosper, my grandfather did continue to practice his brand of Judaism. He must have had a decent voice because he often served as Cantor for the High Holidays in El Dorado’s Ohev Zedek congregation. Sadly, that congregation slowly died out and was disbanded for good in 1936. My grandmother died in 1937, and my father left the El Dorado area to move in with his brother in OilCity. Three years later, he arrived as a serviceman in Savannah, where he met my mother and settled down. Like his father, my father was not a religious man, but he always hosted a Friday night dinner, observed the holidays, and supported my mother in establishing and maintaining a kosher home all of his adult life.
My father’s story was not typical of his siblings. Only two other children in his family married Jewish spouses and only one other—that uncle in Oil City—brought up his children as Jews. Intermarriage and the malaise of Judaism in the Delta took their toll. Other small branches of my father’s family in the Greenville,Mississippi, area did manage to keep Judaism alive. And there is a family legend told of my Aunt Fannie Schwartz who used to invite Jewish servicemen in the Greenville area during World War II to come to Friday night dinner, often entertaining as many as 20 for a mostly kosher meal. (My aunt always brought her own kosher plate and kosher food to luncheons in Greenville and went to Memphis periodically to get the kosher meat she kept in her own personal deep freezer.)
Which brings me back to the ISJL and its mission. There are still a large number of very small Jewish communities spread out in small and large towns in the Deep South. Providing support to these communities for simchas and sad occasions, offering information on Jewish history and learning, and providing a means to store elements of our own history is so very important. So I decided to make a small monetary contribution, and to write this blog post to perhaps stir others to find out more about the organization, and to continue my efforts to learn and write more about my family’s Jewish roots so my children can have something to hold on to and something important to add to their own foundation.
By ISJL Education Fellow Dan Ring
The ISJL Education Curriculum addresses Israel in many ways at various grade levels. The fifth grade, for example, contains a lesson about the Western Wall (also called the Kotel) in Jerusalem. For an activity, teachers can have students write prayers to be placed in the Wall and ask their Education Fellows to arrange for the letters to reach their intended destination.
Although you can easily do this virtually through different websites, I was excited when the fifth grade class at Temple Israel Religious School in Columbus, Georgia, wrote physical letters, which I was able to have delivered through face-to-face social networks.
Here is how it went down:
1. During Lesson 7 of the 5th grade curriculum, students in Columbus composed their own prayers and put them all in an envelope.
2. During my fall visit, the class surprised me with the collected notes.
3. Two weeks later, I attended a bar mitzvah in Baltimore, my hometown. My friend Josh, a Yeshiva student in Jerusalem and the brother of the bar mitzvah boy, was visiting for the occasion. So I gave him the envelope.
5. A few days later, Josh returned to Jerusalem, where he took the written prayers to the Wall.
6. The prayers have been delivered (to the Wall).
Thanks again to Josh for helping out the fine students of Temple Israel, and to another Josh for taking such great photographs!